Note: Spoiler alert – contains details about how the book ends. Don’t read on if you’d prefer to discover how the story ends for yourself.
I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees yesterday. Having helped with my Dad with his bees as a kid I could relate to the learning experiences involved with bee keeping. I think bees are amongst the first domesticated animals, and they are a joy to work with.
The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of teenage girl who runs away with her black nanny, the girl escaping her father’s anger issues, and the nanny escaping her anger issues. So, here’s the story. Thelma and Louise come across a gingerbread house drizzled with honey and move in with the Triplets of Belleville. While they dance a bit they burn some food, and one of the triplets leaves a trail of crumbs, oh, wait, that’s Hansel and Gretel…
I liked the start of the book – I thought it had real potential. About a third of the way into the book, I found a phrase that I could really find resonance with –
One thing I was starting to understand was that August loved to tell a good story.
‘Really, it’s good for all of us to hear it again,’ she said. ‘Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.’
Sue’s writing is very accessible – I read the book in half the afternoon and part of an evening. The book should share space on the shelf along with other teenlit books. It’s got the chew power of a chick flick, and according to the blurb, film rights have been sold. Sue’s characterisations seem rather 2D, and there is the impression of someone making this up, rather than a story based on any reasoned, researched, or practical experience of the historic circumstances. The processing of honey was pretty much the way we used to; but I don’t believe, for example, that the parts of the story where a white girl and a black boy can drive about in the town together, pretty much ignored, while the southern states of the USA were tearing themselves apart with civil rights ‘tensions’. Just didn’t ring true.
And this is not the only place where the book separates itself from the similar feeling (but unrelated) Fried Green Tomatoes. The Secret Life of Bees confused me repeatedly over the passing of time – what seemed to be a long time was a week, and overall, the story moved forward, I’d guess about three months. Having worked with honey, I can assure you that it’s an annoyingly sticky kind of product, and it’s heavy (you try lifting five litres of honey), hard work – maybe I’m sensitive, but Sue conveys an impression that it’s all sweetness and light and if you send enough love out the bees won’t sting. Yes, you do have to be confident, calm, and quick, but, and here’s the thriller, bees have quite a small brain. They think that when you come in to take the honey that you’re stealing their hard work. They think that when the hive is attacked, they will defend it. This means stinging. You. They don’t have much room for receiving love when they’ve got war on their mind.
When I awoke this morning I finally made a connection to the wicked father. Sue didn’t delve deeply into the father’s (T. Ray) character – apparently T. Ray didn’t match Walter Cronkite in looks, wit, or wisdom. Who does? T. Ray didn’t object to his dog peeing on his boot once. T. Ray got hot and tired running his peach orchard. T. Ray showed his world what he thought of it with a giant bum shaped sculpture of a peach outside the farm gate. Apparently this made him a completely flawed charater. It’s true, he did torture Lily by having her kneel on grits (coarsly ground corn) for an hour. It’s true he could have done with some anger management classes, if he lived in these politically correct days. But, he didn’t.
It feels slightly voyeristic to make the actions that would’ve found acceptance in the past, vile in the present. I think that this is where The Secret Life of Bees falls apart. There’s a kind of prissy, curled up lip, spoiled brattishness about the writing. T. Ray is a man who fell in love with a woman, and marries her when she became pregnant. T. Ray works on his peach orchard – relentless, unrewarding work which he took on to support his wife and somewhat unwanted family. Meanwhile his wife runs off leaving him with the child. The wife has a nervous breakdown, it’s possibly some sort of post-natal depression. T. Ray now has to deal with the trials running the farm, the grinding poverty, a girl child, and an absent wife with a nervous breakdown. The only creature that rewards him with unconditional love is Snout, his dog, and it is no surprise that Snout is forgiven for the one urinary lapse he makes. T. Ray doesn’t have the benefit of a good education, he has managed to hold it together back in civilian life having been in the military – I’m not sure if it was WW II or Korea. The one thing that did become apparent was that T. Ray had loved his wife.
Sue decided to leave this for the reader to pull together (if they can) through the book, and in my case, I clicked the next day. How would I feel towards a bratty, somewhat unwanted kid, when I was exhausted and frustrated after a stinking hot day dealing with a low income crop like peaches? A kid who shot and killed her mother, the woman I loved? A kid who runs off? A kid who then rings me collect to ask her burning, big question in life, which is ‘What’s my favourite color?’
How would I feel? Oh, I think I’d send about as much love as the bees would…